This is in response to a lot of questions Andrew had about whether Christianity makes sense or is worthy of concern.(The challenge was to EILI5, I suppose this is as simple as I can make it for now.) I am coming at this in an admittedly unorthodox way. I don’t know that I believe in a personal God, or even really know what that could mean, so setting aside this fundamental Christian doctrine, i.e. whether God is either personal or ethical. I will try to put the other rudiments of Christianity in a way that would make sense to the average five-year-old (or 35-year-old) deist, atheist, or pagan.
Christian J, commented on my post about evolution. In light of the conversion experience I had in November, my eyes opened to a a real vacancy within current Mormon practice and how the Gospel is taught to children. There is something that most Mormons just don’t get, or at least they don’t talk like they get it. They are often very hostile to it. I believe that a big part of the problem is the LDS understanding of sin. I want to be clear that I think that the problem is not in the LDS scriptures, it is in what is taught in primary. Mormons describe sin as crime, i.e. intentional disobedience to a law. I think this is a fundamental mistake that has dangerous psychological ramifications. This recent conference talk “Avoiding the Trap of Sin” which I chose at random from the LDS website gives a absolutely run-of-the-mill-LDS description of sin. Elder Mazzagardi explains:
I asked my blue-eyed, cheerful, and innocent granddaughter how she was preparing for baptism.
She answered with a question: “Grandpa, what is sin?”
I silently prayed for inspiration and tried to respond as simply as I could: “Sin is the intentional disobedience to God’s commandments. It makes Heavenly Father sad, and its results are suffering and sadness.”
Clearly concerned, she asked me, “And how does it get us?”
The question first reveals purity, but it also reveals a concern for how to avoid involvement with sin.
Elder Mazzagardi gives a typical Mormon caveat about the “trap of sin” and points to how a child might avoid involvement in sin:
When I was a teenager, my curfew was 10:00 p.m. Today, that is the time some go out in order to have fun. Yet we know that it is at night that some of the worst things happen. It is during the dark hours that some youth go to places with inappropriate environments, where music and lyrics do not allow them to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Then, under these circumstances, they become easy prey to sin.
This teaching and counsel seems like commonsense to a Mormon, and it is absolutely typical of what is taught in church. Mormons should realize that from a Christian point of view, it is near madness. Believing that we can “avoid involvement in sin” is a misunderstanding of Christianity. Continue reading
I was recently asked by a Mormon: “How much false doctrine can one believe and still be ‘saved’?”
The question was asked in the context of whether or not Jesus will have a literal 1,000 year reign on Earth after his Second Coming and if anyone who disagrees with me is going to Hell for believing false doctrine.
I think it’s a troubling question for many reasons but I understand why a Mormon would be asking an Evangelical about the implications of heresy. Evangelicals for the most part reject Mormonism as a form of Christianity largely because the nature of God described in Mormonism is so radically different than the one defined in classic Christianity. (Specifically if there is more than one god, if Heavenly Father was once a man, if men can become gods and how the three figures of the godhead coexist as “one”). If Mormons are determined to be outside the fold then why not someone with a different view of the end times or eternal security? Continue reading
Along with the fact of salvation, there is another fact that is wound up in Christianity. James pointed to this fact: i.e. faith without works is dead. Once a person accepts that salvation is possible, the question remains, what should I do? The Mormon answer is actually very compelling for most people given the facts in front of them.
Joseph Smith grew up. like many Christians today, with the understanding that the Bible was the word of God. He had no sophisticated understanding of how to prioritize scriptural passages – nor did he care for sophisticated understandings – he saw the original text all as equally true. It all came from God didn’t it? The bible talks a lot about Israel, Zion, the end of the world, the Second Coming, the Kingdom of God and a whole lot of other things that would happen on earth. To him, and to many reasonable people, if the Bible is reliable, it seems like the “true” Church should be wrapped up in that stuff in a big way.
Nearly every country preacher in Joseph Smith’s time was using reason and the Bible to try to figure out how the Bible should apply to life and society in light of the dire prophecies in the text. They were incorporating “churches” based on all kinds of novel hermeneutics, visions, assimilation of science, and personal creativity. Some of this, no doubt, was simply branding and gimmicks, and the young Joseph Smith was clearly deeply cynical about the established order of things – especially given the bald-faced selling of salvation and religious competition that was going on around him. It may not be possible tell if Joseph was “saved” in the Protestant sense, but it may be also that he rejected the descriptions of salvation given by the country preachers around him, because they were too simple and self-serving. He might have thought that the way the preachers talked about salvation was corrupt as they were, or at least made way-too-simple in order to make their product more attractive. Like Joseph, these country preachers had already completely rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, every state church, and every other denomination except their own. It seemed clear to him that these men did not seek “the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol.” (D&C 1: 16.) He sought direction from heaven.
Since I acknowledged the fact of God, I have considered what other important facts should be acknowledged, which is the most simple, and how these facts fit together.
Guilt is a simple fact. Guilt should be obvious to everyone – every sane person gets it. Justice also seems a simple fact- some people should accept guilt and feel it. Logic and honesty also require that I acknowledge that I should accept guilt and rightfully feel guilty. In fact, everybody should feel guilty. This fact showed itself in a most visceral way in a small Polish town while staring at room filled with human hair. Guilt is the case for us all, justice and honesty require it.
The fact of guilt is very simple and sturdy. It remains even after we have been completely distracted from it. Also clear is the fact that virtue permeates every aspect of life and excellence is never perfection. No matter what the sacrifice, justice and logic continue to point to out the fact guilt in the honest mind – especially in light of the bloody cost of the most common sorts of imperfection and vice.
Virtue is also a fact – there are ways of being that people should never be required to feel guilty for. These ways should be championed and fostered in children. It is a fact that children should be taught to make a stand for virtue and to suffer wrong rather to sacrifice it. Life is better with virtue.
It also seems that virtue also seems to dissolve feelings of guilt, or at least relieve the intensity of the feeling. Some who have the knack for acting with virtuous attitudes can avoid almost any feeling of guilt, even when they engage in unspeakable atrocity. (e.g. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) It’s a simple fact: justice requires guilt, but virtuous feeling alleviates guilt. Of course, when virtue demands performance and sacrifice, guilt shows up when we don’t tender performance and sacrifice. Perfection is required in order to eliminate guilt.
There is one very powerful fact that seems relieve guilt better than virtue: Love. Love doesn’t follow rules like virtue, it’s well outside the rules of justice. It often acts inexplicably, like magic. But love’s power to direct a person virtue and action even when virtue and justice does not require it does not relieve all guilt and bring stable joy. It always demands more love. With love, amazing joy comes in glimpses and these feelings are only worth anything when virtue shows up with love.
Joy also is a fact. People seem to find joy in all kinds of things: virtue, work, leisure, sensory pleasure, drugs, intellectual contemplation, relationships, fame. But after the joyful attitude ends with the activity, the weird facts of logic reassert the very simple and pervasive fact of guilt: it’s shadow lies behind every action, every thought, every impulse. Virtue and love (among other things) can distract us from guilt, but justice and honesty continue to reassert guilt as a fact.
It is also a strange fact that joy is rarely found in tandem with guilt. For some reason – likely rooted in our DNA and culture – the feeling of guilt does not sit well with joy. For some, any guilt robs the mind of unspeakable joy, especially when the mind honestly recognizes the impossible demands of virtue and love. For some left without a path to consistent virtue or love, life is pain peppered with fleeting joy, or even completely joyless.
But there is a weird sort of joy. That joy that shows up even while honestly contemplating the hard facts of guilt is also a well-established fact. There are plenty of cases where the attitude of guilt changes immediately and powerfully into the attitude of joy by adopting a certain attitude — often merely by acknowledging the fact that guilt can turn to joy. For some, tears of sadness caused by guilt actually do turn to tears of joy.
This sort of joy happens even when people should feel guilty, even when they are not virtuous or loving, even when they are in agonizing pain, hanging mangled on a cross. Justice, virtue, and guilt all seem irrelevant to the fact of this joy. This seems to happen especially when people are brutally honest and acknowledge that justice, virtue, guilt, pain, and death are pervasive and undeniable facts.
This sort of joy is an unspeakable mystery for it to drastically undermine these simple facts of life. Given the nature of guilt we have no good words to explain this feeling of joy because it would not to depend on any of our attitudes toward words like: love, happiness, goodness, righteousness, kindness, propriety, virtue, guilt, justice etc.. Perhaps it could be described as “salvation” or “redemption”, but even these seem mixed up in virtue and love, and begin to engender guilt by their association. Maybe a more unique word is necessary.
How is it possible that such unspeakable joy is a fact, even in the honest mind who acknowledges its vices and has never known the magic of unconditional love? Even in cases where the fact of guilt is blaring and inescapable? What if there was honest joy even when there is honestly not enough love or virtue to distract the mind from guilt? A sort of joy that somehow rightfully defied nature, feeling, thought, instinct, or description.
What if it was a fact that this joy happened by merely acknowledging that this sort of joy is a simple fact. A fact far more simple the pervasive complexities of justice, virtue, and guilt. What if it was this simple, unspeakable, fact that Jesus was pointing to?
Could salvation be that simple?
I am always harping about how Mormons are allowed to believe a lot more things than traditional Christians and still be Mormons. I don’t think the Mormons that run the Church care about truth per se, but its usefulness in the cause, and it is eminently useful not to engage in debates about what you have to believe to be LDS. I think most sane people believe this— it is generally not wise to declare how stupid you think others are within their earshot, and most people are apt to say stupid things when they are cutting down another cause.
From my point of view, this reality presents those who make massive truth claims, such as Evangelical Protestants, an interesting test: Here is a group of people who ostensibly believe a lot of the same things you Evangelicals believe; they are going to hell, forever, because of their confusion; it seems that the power of your message should be able to convert these people. For me, it’s as if the Mormons are laying ready on Mount Carmel and Evangelicals can’t make so much as a spark to ignite what is dry kindling. I thought a good place to put my pet theory to the test is to determine whether a Mormon can fully believe the Protestant view of Salvation and remain LDS. Is there some logical necessity of rejecting the message of the Restoration? If they are not now, Mormons even become saved Christians and remain in the Church?
The question seems important. If the answer is “no,” Protestants should joyfully want Mormons to believe in their view of the Gospel whether or not the Mormons remain faithful to their LDS covenants or attend LDS church or believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God, or even continue to gather converts. The entire approach to LDS missionary work would not be to show them where they are wrong theologically (which is extremely boring), but to teach them the truth in spirit and in power like Paul advocated (manifestly less boring). I recognize that many Mormons do not, and never will, understand or believe the theology behind the Evangelical view of salvation from original sin. But most Mormons are new Mormons without set theologies, and LDS Missionary efforts require a wide tolerance for strange beliefs. (I learned this acutely while eating dinner with a Jet Propulsion Laboratory physicist and my missionary companion, who was convinced that the earth was hollow.) Continue reading
This came up in anther discussion and I thought it deserved separate attention.
Mormons definitely believe that people are an integral part of God’s plan to bring salvation to he world. He uses us to send the message.
Here is an example of some thinking on this subject from Feast Upon the Word Blog
Evangelicals seem to believe something similar, that faith comes by hearing the word, and that people are there to evangelize.
Romans 10:17– “So then Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. ”
In principal I don’t see any fundamental difference in how we view God’s use of humans in this capacity- people are the vehicles God most often uses to spread the word, with some exceptions.
Of course Mormons believe that people will have a lot longer to spread the word to their brothers and sisters and that everyone will ultimately have the opportunity to hear and accept the gospel. I am not as clear on all the Evangelical Answers to the issues surrounding this. Although I have listened to this: from parchment and pen: Fate of the Un-Evangelized
Do we have very similar or radically differing thoughts about how or why God uses people to work salvation? What does this say about our respective God-views?